Saudi Arabia has been a central pillar of the Arab world for decades. Its vast oil supplies, close ties to the United States and cash-heavy diplomacy assured its position from the years of the Cold War until a wave of unrest broke in Tunisia in January 2011 and swept across the region. Now the Saudi ruling family is nervously reassessing a very different world.
With key allies like Egypt's long-ruling president Hosni Mubarak gone and the first flickers of public unrest appearing at home, Saudi Arabia has offered a mix of old and new responses. The oil-rich nation has successfully stifled domestic protests with a combination of billions of dollars in new jobs programs and an overwhelming police presence.
But it has also taken unusually aggressive actions, including sending 2,000 troops into Bahrain, the tiny kingdom across a causeway from Saudi Arabia where protests by the Shiite minority have threatened the government.
The Saudis are worried that the turmoil in the region could present an opening to Iran, a Shiite country that has formed alliances across the region with groups opposed by Saudi Arabia, including Hezbollah and Hamas.
Saudi Arabia has also helped stabilize world energy prices by increasing its crude-oil production to make up for the loss of Libya’s oil.
The Americans fear that the unrest sweeping the Middle East is coming at a bad time for the Saudis, and their concerns have increased, partly because of the continued tumult in Bahrain. Many of the issues driving the protests elsewhere are similar to those in Riyadh: an autocratic ruling family resistant to sharing power, surrounded by countries in the midst of upheaval. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s leadership is in question. King Abdullah, 87, is, by all accounts, quite ill, as is the crown prince.